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Should we think of nature as a healer?

Chris Baraniuk
Chris Baraniuk
5 min read
Should we think of nature as a healer?
Photo by Evelina Zhu from Pexels.

This summer, people in London suffering from poor mental health will be invited to try a new treatment: wetlands. Up to 300 people in the city who don’t have easy access to green or blue spaces will get the opportunity to attend a six-week programme run by the London Wetland Centre.

Participants will enjoy hands-on experiences with “watery” nature, the centre says, while learning about wildlife common to wetland areas in the UK.

It’s the latest in a trend towards nature prescribing – the idea that directing people to spend time outdoors looking at trees, caressing flower heads and so on will result in improved health, since nature is associated with physical and mental health benefits. Nature prescribing has previously appeared in other forms in the UK, for example in Shetland back in 2017.

One of the proponents of the approach is Nooshin Razani, at the University of California San Francisco. In a 2016 TED talk, she explained how her experiments suggested that nature excursions can lower stress.

I have to admit that I’ve been self-prescribing nature for some time now, and at an even higher dose than usual during the pandemic. In January, I wrote a blog about my experiences spending time in Irish woodlands during 2020 and how, when everything else seemed to be closed or falling apart, the sanctuary of these species-filled spaces felt extremely reassuring.

I think this idea, that nature is a place out there imbued with healing powers, is really catching on. Our culture increasingly figures it as a kind of therapeutic zone that we must access regularly, in order to be at our best.

This repositioning of nature as a healer manifests in all sorts of ways. From nature prescribing to the emphasis on nature appreciation during Mental Health Awareness Week, which was last week, as it happens.

I myself have turned to nature in the hope of feeling better. Credit: Chris Baraniuk.

At a basic level, I take little issue with this, not least because, as stated, I sometimes think about my own relationship with the outdoors in this way. It’s like a series of restorative transactions. But the link between nature and human well-being is complicated, as I discussed last month in a feature for Knowable Magazine.

Besides the murkiness of that relationship, there’s also the fact that those who say “nature is good for you” rarely ever define what sort of nature they mean. And it turns out that that really matters.

Last year, researchers in the UK revealed that people who spent time outdoors experienced feelings of happiness – but they were happier in places where they encountered a greater variety of bird species or a greater number of different habitats.

And in a review article in Current Environment Health Reports published last week, the authors noted similar associations between biodiversity and wellbeing:

“In a cross-sectional observational study, primary school children exposed to higher fungal and fauna diversity around their schools were less likely to develop allergic sensitisation and to have improved lung function, respectively.”

Importantly, however, like-for-like effects were not felt everywhere:

“More diverse ecosystems or habitats […] were positively associated with greater quality of life in Finland, but not with psychological well-being in England.”

At the very least, there may be an important relationship between well-being and biodiversity, specifically, rather than just nature as a vague, amorphous whole. And it might be that, in some cases, valuing natural places for their health benefits could help make the case for biodiversity protections. The authors of the review article, for instance, argue that “urban biodiversity conservation should be considered as public health investment”.

There is a niggle with all this, though. As the writer Jeremy Mynott explained last month in the digital magazine Psyche, we run the risk of reducing nature to a “medical commodity” and, in the process, stifling our hopes of engaging with it in spontaneous, genuinely invigorating ways:

“There’s no point in putting beauty, wonder, inspiration, understanding and the other positive experiences we rightly associate with nature on some sort of ‘to do’ list.”

Mynott’s point, as I understand it, is that it’s not enough just to bring people to nature – they have to be willing and able to drink it in. Some nature prescribing efforts do seem to be addressing this, though. The London Wetland Centre, for instance, says, “Overall, the aim is to enable people to continue independently exploring nature to improve their long-term mental health.”

Hopefully that means nurturing a genuine interest in nature – not just an awareness of it.

Clearly, nature is not a pill you can take twice a day, or similar. To me, at least, it’s stories, colours, music and mysteries. An idea I’m going to return to in this newsletter is the notion that humans inevitably end up reading nature as a text. This is similar to how we can’t help but perceive the sequence of events in our own lives as a kind of narrative.

In brief, though, maybe we should think of nature, all the trees, the animals, the landscapes, the interactions, as a library. A library full of stories that can (and do) heal – it's just that you have to want to read them, and know how.

In most editions of this newsletter I'm going to append a few links to things I've read recently – interesting material that is relevant to the nature-culture theme. I hope you enjoy them :)

Here's a really powerful piece in Notre Dame Magazine about the nature writer Barry Lopez, who died on Christmas Day last year. It was written by Fred Bahnson, a fellow writer, and in part recalls Bahnson's three-day stay with Lopez in 2018, which took the form of an extended interview. Bahnson's piece is detailed and very moving. There's much in it to think about, including a discussion of nature's spiritual dimension and Lopez's interest in the ascetic lifestyle of Benedictine monks, which he considered taking up himself at one point.

Ultimately, the story turns from communes to communities and how Lopez thought that stories championing nature ought to move away from the traditional narrative that focuses on a heroic individual. Bahnson reports Lopez's feelings on this:

“We need new narratives, at the center of which is a concern for the fate of all people. The story can’t be about the heroism of one person. It has to be about the heroism of communities.”

Separately, a piece of news worth sharing is this, as reported by The Guardian, on how sales of peat-based compost will be banned in the UK from 2024. Peat locks up vast amounts of carbon, even more than rainforest, hectare for hectare. Some environmentalists have been calling for a ban on peat-based compost for a long time, though in a nation of gardeners used to doing things a certain way, the idea had not caught on in all corners.

It's worth noting, though, that just last week the BBC's flagship gardening programme, Gardeners' World, included a segment on the importance of switching to peat-free growth media, in order to ensure peat stays in the ground. You can watch that clip here.

Finally, check out this fabulous photo essay over at Inkcap Journal, on how the English engage with nature. I won't wax lyrical. The piece, written by the photographer, is brilliant and the images speak volumes, so just go and look at them!

Links and referencesHealth

Chris Baraniuk

I'm a freelance science journalist and nature-lover who wants to find new, hopeful ways to bring people and nature together.